In June, Daniel, Nate, and I took our first big (read: we didn’t stay with our parents) family vacation to Puerto Rico. I was a little nervous about taking a six year old who’s so, well, high energy.
I shouldn’t have worried. We had a blast.
The trip was a celebration, of sorts. I had finished my first year of working full time, which meant a lot of change and sweat. We knew the time was right for a big trip, but we were a little lost as to whether we should take Nate or not. What if we spent a couple of thousand dollars to chase him and feel exhausted?
I asked a good friend of mine who is a rock star in this area. I mean, she takes toddlers (plural) to Europe and doesn’t blink. Her advice? Think of it as a trip, not a vacation. It’ll be more work, traveling with a kid, but it’s worth doing. Best advice ever.
So we bought tickets. And snorkels and swim suits.
Where We Stayed
We’ve learned that a full-size kitchen is great for low-budget, kid-friendly travel, so I found a great little apartment on VRBO (here) in the Isla Verde resort area. It was 10 feet from the beach, not in a crowded area of the island, and best of all, within walking distance of grocery stores. For most of our meals, we ate normal food in our apartment, which again, is more a kid-friendly trip mindset than a vacation one. It served us well.
What We Did
Daniel and I are die-hard planners, so we put that to good use: we planned to alternate slower beach days with busier days of sightseeing, hiking, or exploring Old San Juan. This worked out perfectly for our water-loving kid. He loved the forts in Old Town, but if he didn’t have time to enjoy the Caribbean beaches on his own timetable, he certainly would have shown us his displeasure. On the other hand, if all we did was dig in the sand, Daniel and I would have regretted not exploring more. For the most part, it seemed to be a good balance of activity and rest.
Usually, when I know we’re going to a new town, I’ll spend a lot of time on Yelp looking and similar sites for local recommendations. I did that, but we found we had the greatest fun just walking around and finding new things.
A few specific things we did:
We took the public bus to Old San Juan instead of renting a car. It cost 75 cents a person (exact change only) and we met some incredibly friendly locals who talked to us and made friends with our son despite the language barrier. Granted, we did wait a while for the bus on both ends (once way more than was reasonable), but it was a travel adventure we wouldn’t have experienced with a rental.
We explored both forts (San Cristobal and El Morro) in Old San Juan several times. These two ancient fortresses are one of the oldest structures in America and are not to be missed. We tramped all over them in pouring rain, dashing in 500 year old tunnels in between downpours. It was awesome. El Morro sits on a large green where local families bring picnics and fly kites against the ocean breezes. Naturally, we bought a kite and joined in.
We ate mofongo, a local food we fell in love with. It’s a mixture of mashed plantains and various meats, and man, it was yummy. We ate it both on the street and in a nice restaurants.
We beachcombed near El Morro, across from the Capitol building. Here, we found the best souvenirs: blue-green sea glass and alabaster shells, all while listening to an insanely loud truck drivers’ protest.
We took took small risks we might not have otherwise, all in the name of adventure. We ate at somewhat questionable street carts, fed hundreds of pigeons that swarmed us in return, and petted dozens of cats that roam the streets. Nate’s favorite memory isn’t that he saw the Caribbean or climbed 500 year old stairs, but that a kind man showed him how to hold bird food in his hand so dozens of pigeons wouldn’t be frightened away. That afternoon at the Parque de Las Palomas was magic and it’s how I will always think of Nate on this trip: giggling and chattering to his new friends as the birds flew around his head.
We walked and walked and walked. And treasures were in our path: we found the San Juan Cathedral, where Ponce de Leon is buried, we played at a local playground under the orange and red Jacaranda trees, and we stumbled across an artisan’s market, where we met and talked to talented artisans.
On the last full day, we rented a car and drove to El Yunque National Rainforest. Here, we drove up part of the mountain and then hiked what was a surprisingly tiring, but beautiful, trail. The waterfall and swimming hole at the end make it worth the effort though.
How We Kept Our Sanity
Nate is high octane, all the time. And yeah, he’s one kid, but frankly, he’s exhausting. But the thing is, he loved Puerto Rico. He absorbed more of the language than I thought he would, for example, and now wants to know more. He made friends with everyone he met (which is pretty standard for him) and now San Juan isn’t a place on a map, it’s full of people he knows.
We alternated between big days and beach days, ate out some and in more, and chose things he could physically participate it: climbing old forts, flying kites, hiking in the rainforests. This wasn’t the trip to visit the local art museums and that was ok.
On the last day, when we were leaving our apartment, the elderly janitor asked Nate if he liked his trip. The answer was an enthusiastic yes. “Do you want to be an honorary Puerto Rican?” the man offered. Nate raised his right hand and followed the man's lead: he promised to love this country, to come back often, and to treat it with respect. This fall, when his teacher asks what they did this summer, I’m pretty sure the answer will be, “I became a Puerto Rican.”
What Went Wrong
Like any trip, things went wrong. The rental car agency was terrible and made us nearly miss our flight. Our last afternoon was the worst. Daniel and I had an argument in the middle of Old San Juan - the two of us are half-yelling at each other in the POURING rain while still a thirty minute walk away from where we needed to be twenty minutes before. I can laugh about it now, but certainly wasn’t funny when we arrived at the airport, nearly late, hungry, and dripping. Fun times.
What We Wished We Had Packed
I wish I had packed peanut butter! Food was more expensive than we had anticipated and this staple was sky high.
What We Loved
We loved San Juan. The food was fantastic, the beaches were lovely, the history great. Daniel and I agreed that this trip was probably enough. We don’t feel a huge pull to return, but it felt like a good place to start traveling on a bigger scale with Nate.
What It Inspired Us to Do Next:
Go somewhere new! We’d like to plan a vacation without Nate next, but we certainly want to do another big trip with him soon. California and New York City are on the short list, but who knows?